'They told me either I was too happy or I was too worried.' : Years and Miles Melt Away : Newly Arrived Vietnamese Matriarch Reunited With Loved Ones

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Suu Pham barely survived her last major relocation four decades ago. The boat ride was a rough one from North Vietnam, and Pham was so seasick by the time she arrived in South Vietnam with her family that she practically had to be carried ashore to her new homeland.

This time, Pham made it on her own when she was reunited Friday with family members that she had not seen for years, if ever, because of the separations caused by the Vietnam War.

But all was not perfect after this trip, either.

Three daughters remain behind in Vietnam, while three sons in Texas were unable to make it to California in time for the reunion. And even among those children who were at Los Angeles International Airport to greet Pham, there was some concern over her gaunt appearance and health.

"My mother is so thin," said a red-eyed Ha Pham, the new immigrant's 33-year-old son who lives in San Jose. "I never thought my mother would be too different."

But such worries were drowned out by the tears that flowed freely upon Pham's arrival.

This was the moment Pham had been awaiting since 1981, when family members already in this country put in her immigration application in hopes of offering her a better life.

A tired Pham walked into the waiting area of the Los Angeles airport Friday and burst into tears when her daughter--whom she had not seen in 23 years--rushed up in a yellow Vietnamese traditional dress to hug her.

"That's mom!" Hue Pham, a 42-year-old counselor at Orange Coast College, exclaimed to her own family as she ran up to greet the woman. "That's mom!"

Hue Pham's son, 12-year-old Thuan Nguyen, and two daughters, 9-year-old Quynh-Anh Nguyen and Tam-Anh Nguyen, 7--also in yellow--followed to meet their grandmother for the first time as their father, 42-year-old Long Nguyen, videotaped the emotional scene.

Ha Pham, the 33-year-old son, took pictures all the while.

He has not seen his mother since 1981, when he and three other brothers escaped Vietnam by boat and were reunited with Hue Pham, who was then living in Houston.

Suu Pham, whose husband died in the late 1960s, still has three other daughters remaining in the Southeast Asian country.

Hue Pham, the eldest of eight in the family, had come to America in 1968 to study math in Michigan. When South Vietnam fell into Communist hands in 1975, she lost contact with her family for two years.

Friday's reunion was not quite complete because the other three brothers in Texas could not get here in time. They originally thought that their mother, who left Vietnam Aug. 22, would arrive here Aug. 28.

But U.S. immigration officials contacted family members on Aug. 27 and told them that their mother could not leave the refugee camp in Thailand at that time because of high blood pressure. The officials finally called back Sept. 6 and said that Suu Pham's flight would be landing in Los Angeles in a week. Only Ha Pham was able to make it down from San Jose.

"These past days we've been worrying they'd tell us that she's sick and can't come over," Hue Pham said.

Suu Pham said she still did not understand why her blood pressure was high.

"They told me either I was too happy or I was too worried," she said.

"I just couldn't sleep. It was crowded and dirty" in the Thai refugee camp where she stayed before leaving for the United States, she said. "Night was just like day there, with people constantly moving in and out of the camp on their way to America. So even a healthy person could turn sick."

In the van on the way to Hue Pham's four-bedroom home near South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Suu Pham and her children laughed at how she had her hair cut and permed just before leaving Vietnam to better fit into American society. Her children said they missed the old style, with her hair wrapped in a bun.

As Pham scanned the endless freeway traffic during her first real car ride, the family talked excitedly about all Pham could now do in Costa Mesa and about the trip they now plan to Texas.

From the back seat, her grandson, Thuan, asked: "Do you like cars, grandmother?"

She never answered. It had been a long, long trip from Vietnam. Instead, she rested her head against the back seat and looked as if she were ready to drift off to sleep. She would deal with the cars and other details of her new life later.

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